Text: Nicole Asis [PH] | Interview: Juan Bottero [AR] | Photos: SEKEM [EG]
Last January 2018, SIF Coordinator Juan Bottero interviewed SEKEM Chief Relations Officer Thomas Abouleish on how SEKEM changed the cultural landscape of Egypt for over 40 years, and how they envision its future tasks in society for the next 50 years.
In 1977, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish already sensed a lack of environmental and sustainable consciousness looming over the places near the River Nile that would cause environmental, economic, and social dilemmas. Increasing population growth, building infrastructures on arable land, and using pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture drastically reduced the already limited fertile land. The River Nile, which is Egypt’s main source of life, cannot revitalize itself because of poor waste management, flood irrigation, and a dam constructed along its banks.
“Why is there a lack of consciousness on all these challenges in Egyptian society?” Thomas Abouleish asked, “Can this lack be linked to education?”
Thomas shared that the educational system of Egypt had not always been this way, as it is in its present form. He recalled how Egypt was once hailed as a hub for high standards of education in the 1920s and ’30s. Nowadays, the limited budget of Egypt for education is spent on educational infrastructures, such as buildings, rather than on salaries for teachers, a fund for teachers’ training, or support for curriculum development. Thomas then posed an important question: “How many young people will be able to leave school being inspired to ask questions proactively and take innovative actions accordingly?”
SEKEM was built out of a need to address this social question – how to live in harmony with nature and with one another. 40 years ago, SEKEM Founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish felt the impulse to do something about the environmental and social challenges that Egypt was already facing back then. Thomas shared, “Dr. Ibrahim had already seen this challenge 40 years ago, and he had the vision of Sustainable Development towards a future where every human being can unfold his or her potential; a community where mankind lives together in social forms reflecting human dignity; and a world where all economic activity is conducted in accordance with ecological and ethical principles.”
With this vision, he started an initiative in the middle of the desert built on organic-biodynamic agriculture. The crops and products he produced were not sold to consumers in Basel or Berlin but made available to the people living in Cairo. Moreover, he built a consciousness on fair trade and fair price to the people in the complete supply chain – from farmer to consumer. But it did not stop there. Apart from fair trade practices, Dr. Ibrahim gave 10% of the profit to community development, 10% for research, and 10% in schools and other cultural initiatives, where any new technique or practice was made available and open-sourced to the public. And this open sharing of information is also practiced today — how SEKEM collaborates with an international network in their work. “SEKEM has friends associations in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, which are highly supportive and active in fundraising for activities in the school. The partner associations, as well as the worldwide network of like-minded people and initiatives, play a huge part in SEKEM’s success. And without them, SEKEM would not be where it is today.”
In the aspect of sustainability, Thomas shared how SEKEM roots itself to the concept of threefolding but taking it a step further. “We work with the fourfold model, as we have to include nature as our base and source of life. Also, we shall always consider a cosmic or spiritual dimension as a source of inspiration for our work. Hence, there is the dimension of social life, the dimension of cultural life, ecology, economy, and all of them are surrounded by spirituality and the cosmos. Yet, each of these dimensions is always incorporated with the others.”
With all the talks of shifting mindsets and practices in solving climate change, food scarcity, and water shortage, Thomas urged that we need to rethink not only ecological practices but also evaluate how we cultivate cultural life. He described that the starting point should be a new way of education, including deep integration of the arts, which shall foster unlocking the unique potential of every individual and herewith, support development in each dimension. “Drawing a picture or playing music must not be perfected, yet, the process of doing it can be very important and helpful.”
SEKEM also sees ownership from a different perspective, which is based on the ethos “Economy of Love”. Thomas described that he sees no owner for SEKEM. “SEKEM should own itself and the people within our community are all contributors to the idea, to the common vision. “Economy of love” can be more than fair trading principles. It should be an open and transparent value generation, and the added value should be fairly spread within the supply chain and used for the development of the individual and the community in all regards: education, research, arts, nature. And it should help all of us to push toward a circular economy, zero waste, and sustainable agricultural practices.”
Spirituality is deeply embedded in the way of living and working at SEKEM, which wells up as the main source of inspiration and innovation that keeps this 40-year-old initiative alive. “Spirituality plays a big role in SEKEM, especially for the members of SEKEM’s Future Council. Those are the ones who constantly work on SEKEM’s vision and future leading steps. We then certainly have great people working on implementing the vision and objectives, but it always needs those who can envision the next steps. The Future Council also meets every day in the morning for half an hour to read a book together, or discuss something, which is not directly related to work.” The content of spiritual work is widespread, which makes the work broader and not limited to a particular viewpoint. He added, “An initiative such as SEKEM couldn’t sustain itself without spirituality– because we need to connect to the cosmos and the spiritual world to get a glimpse into the future.”
This anchoring in both spiritual work and practical daily life is how SEKEM managed the challenges during the past years. SEKEM showed resilience and equity, not only because of how the fourfold model worked but also because of how the community nurtured a spirit of collaboration and fraternity in every endeavor they engage in. Thomas recounted, “The loyalty of our suppliers and clients is built on our way of cooperating and supporting. We have always had good relations with all of them and these relations remain strong, even in challenging times. This is Economy of Love.”
SEKEM started with a man who perceived a pressing need in Egypt and acted on addressing these challenges. Now, the vision of SEKEM has been carried further by individuals who continually strive and work towards societal transformation and cultural renewal, with the development of every individual at its core. SEKEM continues being a sustainable community, in which the center has been and shall always be Human Development, anchored in the spiritual impulses of our time. And this “Economy of Love” will continue to move SEKEM forward.
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